Sinclair still hungry and motivated to lead Canada to World Cup glory
Christine Sinclair says she plays her best soccer when she is having fun.
Watch out world. The Canadian captain is healthy and happy going into her sixth World Cup.
"Honestly as of right now, my mindset is just to enjoy it," Sinclair said of the expanded 32-team tournament in Australia and New Zealand. "I'm a perfectionist and I always put so much pressure and stress upon myself that my goal is enjoy this World Cup. My family's coming down … It's the first time they really travelled to watch me play.
"I just want to create amazing memories. And then on the pitch, it's our first time entering the tournament as (Olympic) champions. So we've got a target on our back and we want to prove to the world that what we did in Tokyo wasn't a one-time thing."
At the age of 40, Sinclair continues to be a talismanic figure on the Canadian women's team. Her role may have changed on the pitch — she often plays a more withdrawn role as an attacking midfielder rather than leading the attack and 90 minutes per game is no longer automatic — but she continues to lead and connect her teammates on and off the field.
"She's working really hard," said Canada coach Bev Priestman. "I went to see her in Portland (where she plays for the NWSL Thorns) a couple of months ago, met with her. The look in her eyes, the hunger, she's doing extra work. She's hungry. And a hungry Christine is not someone you want to mess with. She's been getting way more flow and minutes at Portland. I think when you get to that point in your career and that's not there, that was difficult for her last year. But I think she's seems a lot more positive, a lot more in her flow. And I think Christine in her flow is the best you can get.
"All the interactions I've had with her — (she's) positive and excited, ready to lead this group and bring her experience. So yeah, I'm really happy with where she's at."
Seventh-ranked Canada opens the tournament Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET) against No. 40 Nigeria in Melbourne, continuing Group B play against No. 22 Ireland in Perth on July 26 and No. 10 Australia back in Melbourne on July 31.
Sinclair's positivity comes despite a rocky lead-up to the tournament with both Canadian national teams embroiled in a labour dispute with Canada Soccer. As one of the women's player representatives, Sinclair has been front and centre in recent months.
The players are fighting for the next generation as well as themselves.
"If we want to remain relevant, yeah, some things are going to have to change," Sinclair said by way of summary.
The Canadian women, already a tight-knit group before the dispute, have presented a unified front in their battle for equity and the support they need to succeed.
"I think what it's done is reinforce how close we are," Sinclair said of the off-field fight. "I told the team that there's no other group of players I'd rather go to battle with, on or off the pitch."
Sinclair, the world's all-time leading goal-scorer with 190 in 323 senior appearances, is a down-to-earth humble sort who does not seek the spotlight. But her humility and values are at the root of the Canadian team character.
Sinclair and other veterans have made the Canadian team a welcoming environment and home to all.
"As Canadians we're always known to very humble, very welcoming, very kind. And that's no different at the (national team) level," said defender Vanessa Gilles. "Whether you come in for the first time and have veterans like Christine Sinclair, Desiree Scott — all these players who have been there for years, who have been at the top of their game for years — welcome you in and treat you like an equal is incredible.
"And that's the culture that's been developed and definitely worked on … over many many years with the vets having done the foundational work to get us where we are now. But we definitely have a culture and an environment that's conducive to team chemistry, to winning, to be honest with each other. Which not many national teams can be."
Defender Shelina Zadorsky, a veteran of 89 caps, calls Sinclair "a hero to so many Canadians, not just her teammates."
"Her humility has inspired me so much to be a better player, be a better leader and person," Zadorsky added.
After the isolation of the Tokyo Olympics, Sinclair is looking forward to seeing family at the tournament. Her brother, his wife and their two children will be there for the group stage.
But the native of Burnaby, B.C., will be missing two key teammates with influential winger Janine Beckie (101 caps and 36 goals) recovering from knee surgery and veteran defensive midfielder Desiree Scott (186 caps) unable to recover from her own surgery in time for the tournament.
Beckie's absence has been known for a while but Scott made the pre-tournament camp in Australia in an ultimately failed bid to prove her fitness.
"It's tough to see one of your best friends go through what she's having to go through right now," Sinclair said of Scott.
Sinclair has been a constant, making her senior debut at 16 in March 2000 and scoring her first goal two days later in her second outing.
The goals come more rarely these days. Sinclair has not scored in her last 12 internationals and has five goals in her last 33 appearances since breaking Abby Wambach's record of 184 goals with a two-goal performance in an 11-0 thrashing of St. Kitts and Nevis in January 2020 in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifier in Edinburg, Texas.
But she continues to lead by example and to provide for others on the pitch.
Priestman credits her captain for her attitude and work ethic, saying she did "brilliantly" in pre-tournament fitness testing.
"What stands out to me now is the level of hunger still," said Priestman. "To be at this many World Cups, Olympic Games … She eventually got that gold medal around her neck but she's not finished. She knows the one thing that this country hasn't done yet is go win a World Cup.
"And I think when you've got that hunger, desire and just work ethic in your captain, any player who puts on the (national team) jersey is really thankful to play alongside Christine."
She also credits Sinclair for continuing to evolve.
"She makes critical passes, is critical to this team," said Priestman. "But what I do know is this team is no longer just about Christine Sinclair. I think we've got the depth across the forward line, the midfield line, to not rely on anyone for every single minute across the tournament and I think that's what you'll see (at the tournament).
"But I think she's critical to this team's success."
Sinclair has shown she still has a nose for the goal with Portland.
She has three goals and an assist in 12 outings with the Thorns this season, showing a deft touch in June when she scored against the Chicago Red Stars, shifting the ball from one foot to another to make room for a shot before hammering the ball past the 'keeper.
Sinclair has yet to confirm her post-World Cup plans with Canada. But important matches lie ahead, starting with a two-match Olympic qualifier against No. 43 Jamaica in September.
The Paris Games are just a year away.
"It's incredible," former Canada teammate Diana Matheson said of Sinclair's ability to keep competing at an elite level. "I think it's maybe one of the understated or undervalued aspects of what an incredible athlete she is. Obviously she's the GOAT because she's the best goal-scorer in the world, period. That's one of the many things that differentiates her.
"But I think the longevity that she's had, the ability to put attention on what she needs to put attention on off the field to keep herself healthy year after year and game after game … has been key to her success. There's very few players who have been able to play as long as Sinc does at the level she's been able to do. That's just more firmly cementing her as the GOAT every year that goes by, I think."
Sinclair credits her strive for perfection as the major reason she has had the career that she's had.
"I'm the type of person that's never satisfied always thinks there's room for improvement, whether it's individually, collectively as a team," she said. "That drives me on a day-to-day basis, whether it's early days in pre-season in Portland or getting ready for a World Cup here in Australia, I have the same mindset. And that's to improve, try and find that one or two per cent that can make a difference when it matters most."